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Both gallery buildings open by offering private self-guided tours

Exhibition visitors sit together on a bench. Sitting and pondering works in a museum has been a thing of yesteryear since the COVID-19 lockdowns. // Courtesy of Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

By Jacob Kerst

The Whatcom Museum is offering private, self-guided tours after being closed for almost a year. This is one of the various ways the museum has adapted to pandemic lockdowns since March 2020. 

The museum closed for general admission in mid-November 2020, said Christina Claassen, marketing and public relations manager for the Whatcom Museum. Before that, they were closed between March and September 2020, so they’ve had plenty of time to adapt, Claassen said. For the most part, they’re doing this by transitioning to digital platforms in order to reach their usual audiences, Claassen said.

Museums in phase one have to remain closed for regular admission, but the museum can offer private tours to households of up to six people, Claassen said. In light of this, they are now offering private self-guided tours to both the Lightcatcher galleries and Old City Hall for $25 per building, per household of 6 or fewer, according to the museum’s website.

“We’ve done a variety of other creative things throughout the year, from offering online and phone shopping at our Museum Store, and selling art and birthday party kits, to hosting a virtual auction in the fall,” Claassen said.

Online events are not for everyone though, and the museum compensates for this by supporting more outlets for their information other than online viewing through their website,  said Kolby LaBree, member and journal co-editor of the Whatcom County Historical Society and owner of Bellinghistory Tours.

“The museum does a great job of working with local access television,” LaBree said.

Television can be a good way to access history programming, especially for people who aren't familiar with modern technology, LaBree said. She also said social media is important for keeping in contact with people while being closed, and the museum has been doing a good job at this.

LaBree said planning and creating virtual events and tours is a bit more involved than the usual live and in-person versions. One benefit to virtual events is that they are accessible to people who have mobility issues and cannot participate in a walking tour or do not live near Bellingham but want to explore its local history, LaBree said 

“There is more technological know-how and software involved,” Labree said. “And while I think it is a worthwhile investment, it takes more time and money to make happen.” 

The museum has spent the year creating videos for their YouTube channel and created virtual gallery tours, children’s art activities and collection highlights, LaBree said. The museum has also transitioned their programming to all virtual using Zoom and YouTube livestream. 

Their partner programs with the Whatcom County Historical Society, the North Cascades Audubon Society, Humanities Washington and the League of Women Voters have all been held virtually, with recordings of those programs posted on their YouTube channel afterward, Claassen said.

“It’s been a tough year, but the community has been supportive of the museum and we’ve seen excellent engagement,” Claassen said. “So we are very heartened to have a community that cares about us and still sees the museum as a relevant and meaningful organization for art and history.” 

Last spring, the museum launched a story recording project called the digital Story Dome, which is actually a recording booth inside the Lightcatcher lobby, Claassen said. The recordings are on the museum’s SoundCloud.

The recordings were supposed to have a physical launch in March 2020, but since the museum was forced to shut down, they redirected the launch to an online “story booth,” Claassen said. 

They have been collecting recordings of community members who share their experience with quarantine or reflect on artworks from the museum’s virtual exhibition tour of “Conversations Between Collections,” Claassen said. 

The children museum portion, the Family Interactive Gallery closed in March 2020 and cannot currently reopen. Every other week, the museum creates art activity PDFs and videos to post on their FIG at Home webpage, as well as sending out a FIG e-newsletter. 

“I am partial to the exhibits that are traveling to bring in contemporary artists, living and recently passed, and enjoyed taking my children to the FIG when they were small,” said April Metz de Montiel, a regular patron of the Whatcom Museum. “I think there will someday be an exhibit on how the town experienced and survived the COVID[-19] quarantine and hopefully a memorial for those that we lost to COVID[-19].”

LaBree said the museum is surrounded by a lot of outdoor history the public can see if they aren’t able to attend a private tour right now. There are many self-guided walking tours as well as guide-led walking tours. When you want to get out and when the weather may be too bad, there are virtual activities and YouTube videos available online, LaBree said.

“I love the old iconic city hall building and the fire station that houses the photo archives next door,” LaBree said. “My dad was a fireman who actually worked in that building when it was still a fire station, and as a kid, my brother and I would get to visit him there. The building seemed so awesome, like a castle. We loved to run around the wheelchair ramp in the back of the museum, that is in a square-shape, and look at the cool sculptures and the view.”

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